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It drops 4,000 feet before you can say Arkansas River.

How hairy are the rapids on Colorado's Upper Arkansas River between Leadville and Royal Gorge Bridge? The names give a hint: Sledgehammer, Dire Straits, Devil's Hole, Widow-maker. If rivers were music, this would be heavy metal. From its headwaters in the Mosquito and Sawatch ranges near Leadville, the river drops more than 4,000 feet before reaching Pueblo--hence all that very white water.

Luckily, the Arkansas plays a gentler tune in some sections, which, combined with other attributes--its charming riverside towns (Buena Vista, Salida, Canon City), safe rafting (recent designation as a formal recreation area brought patrols), and accessibility (one end is an hour from Aspen and Vail, the other an hour from Colorado Springs)--makes it a superb day river not just for confirmed river rats but for families and novices as well.

And there's more to do than go rafting. The recent creation of the 150-mile-long riverside Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area (managed jointly by Colorado State Parks and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management) has increased the number of places to picnic, camp, and fish. Or, if you fall in love with the river, you can volunteer for the Friends of the Arkansas (Box 924, Buena Vista 81211), which is fighting a proposed dam and pollution from abandoned mines.

We recommend rafting with one of the area's 70 licensed guide companies, which are concentrated near riverside towns; prices range from $30 for a half-day to $55 to $70 for a day trip. Outfitters might use woodframe boats (you ride in style), paddle boats (you paddle under a guide's direction), or inflatable kayaks (you paddle alone). Operators shuttle you to and from the river, and often provide lunch. This isn't a river to trifle with (there have been drownings), so wear your life jacket and a helmet. And, try to get an outfitter that uses self-bailing boats (they're more fun, since you spend no time bailing).

Even on weekends, outfitters make room for drop-ins, but it's best to reserve ahead of time. To have rafting company brochures sent to you, call the Colorado River Outfitters Association at (303) 369-4632 or local chambers of commerce (all area code 719): 395-6612 in Buena Vista, 539-2068 in Salida, 275-2331 in Canon City.

If you're staying over, Buena Vista and Salida have lodging, dining, and sporting goods stores. Canon City, meanwhile, has the area's most famous attraction, the Royal Gorge Bridge.

The river's five raftable sections each take about a day to run. Rapids range from easy (class 1) to unrunnable (class 6). Except for the boulder-strewn northern stretch (the first listed), which can be run only until mid-July, rafting season is in full swing at least through mid-August, when water levels begin to drop.


Leadville to Buena Vista. 23 miles; 15 named rapids, class 3 to class 6. Hair-raising, shirt-soaking Pine Creek Rapid has tight, rocky drops more suitable for kayaks than rafts. The Numbers are also tough (experienced paddlers only). But the last few miles, from Railroad Bridge, are gentler.

Buena Vista to Salida (Browns Canyon): 28 miles; 12 named rapids, mostly class 2 and 3. This is the most popular run on the river. It has flat water, roller coaster rapids, and big drops. Prepare to get soaked. Granite scenery is stunning.

Salida to Vallie Bridge: 17 miles; 12 named rapids, class 2, 3, and 4. So mellow you'll hardly get damp, this is the ideal run for beginning rafters or families with youngsters. Floating through granite canyons, you'll have time to look for bighorn sheep and enjoy views of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

Vallie Bridge to Parkdale (Grand Canyon): 30 miles; 13 named rapids, class 2 to 5. Most outfitters offer just a 15-mile half-day trip with seven major rapids along this stretch. With a series of turns and drops, it provides all the thrills of Browns Canyon without the crowds. You'll get splashed and rolled around a bit, but it's not as scary as the river below Parkdale can be. You might see bighorn sheep.

Parkdale to Canon City (Royal Gorge). 9 miles; 14 named rapids, mostly class 3, 4, and 5. Soaring canyon walls border the most challenging whitewater in Colorado --heart-stopping rapids like Boat Eater and Sunshine Rapid (the river's record holder for most rafts flipped). You'll be drenched here. Most outfitters insist that participants be swimmers and at least 15 years old.
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Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Window on the West
Author:Finnegan, Lora J.
Date:Jul 1, 1992
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